By J. Jasper Lament, Ph.D.
Band recoveries reported by hunters are an essential source of information for waterfowl managers
Banding is a classic waterfowl research and management tool. Early banding studies provided biologists with a good understanding of the routes, timing, and speed of waterfowl migrations almost a century before technology was available to track birds with satellite transmitters. In fact, the current boundaries of the Pacific, Central, Mississippi , and Atlantic flyways were developed in the 1930s from band recovery data. Along with aerial surveys, the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program, and the Waterfowl Parts Survey, banding data remains vital to the management of migratory waterfowl populations, which number in the tens of millions.
The first person to band birds in the United States was John James Audubon, who marked songbirds with silver thread in 1803. Modern banding of North American migratory birds is managed cooperatively by wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada . In this country, banding is the responsibility of the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) of the U.S. Geological Survey-Biological Resources Division located in Laurel , Maryland . In Canada , the Bird Banding Office of the Canadian Wildlife Service manages banding. Both countries use the same bands, reporting forms, and data formats.
Waterfowl represent just a third of the bird species banded each year by the BBL. But roughly 87 percent of all reported recoveries are of waterfowl (most banded birds are not hunted species, so they have much lower band recovery rates). This reflects the important contributions of waterfowl hunters in harvesting and reporting banded birds.
Most waterfowl banding studies are conducted through cooperative ventures involving state, provincial, and federal wildlife agencies. More than 200,000 ducks, 100,000 geese, and 1,000 swans are banded each year in North America , primarily on breeding areas. Banding crews generally target a particular species but will band other waterfowl that may be caught at the same time. For example, most prairie banding crews target mallards but also band significant numbers of other dabbling ducks.
Since 1914, the mallard has been the most commonly banded species. Through 2004, more than 6.2 million mallards had been banded. The Canada goose is second on the list, with more than 2.8 million birds banded. Surprisingly, the blue-winged teal is third at 1.4 million birds banded. Large numbers of blue-winged teal are captured along with mallards on the prairies and thus are banded in higher numbers than other duck species.
The West Indian whistling duck is the least commonly banded waterfowl species. Only 39 of these birds have been banded during the last 90 years. Among northern-breeding species, the black scoter is the least often banded: only 340 have been banded to date. The remoteness of the black scoter's breeding range in northern Canada and Alaska has made it difficult for waterfowl biologists to capture and band this species.